FICTION MARCH 30, 2010
by Haim Sabato
The Toby Press, 154 pp., $22.95
It is billed as a work of fiction, but for its first few chapters, From the Four Winds, the new book by the Israeli rabbi and novelist Haim Sabato, reads like a memoir. Sabato begins conversationally, recounting his early memories as a young immigrant to Jerusalem in the late 1950s. In a kind of modern-day Exodus, the Jews of Egypt were expelled after the 1956 Sinai War, and they made their way to Israel by roundabout stages, passing through Italy and Greece along the way. When the Sabatos arrived, they were assigned to a housing project in a new neighborhood in West Jerusalem, which the novelist refers to by its traditional name of Beit Mazmil, though by the time he lived there it had already been renamed Kiryat HaYovel.
The hardships of the Mizrahi immigrants to Israel are more widely known today than they once were, though for American Jews, who are mostly of Ashkenazi descendant, the early history of the Jewish state is still more often viewed through the eyes of Eastern European pioneers. Sabato introduces us to this hardscrabble immigrants’ world through the eyes of the child he then was, never certain that he really understood the folkways of his new country. For instance, he is bewildered by the enthusiasm of his fellow second-graders, mostly native Israelis, who are planning their Purim costumes:
I did not understand what it meant to come in costume. I looked around me and saw that everyone was excited and smiling, but I could not understand why. In those days I was not accustomed to ask about something I did not understand. What I did not understand I filled in with my imagination. I tried to equate an unknown word to a word I knew form the prayers, or from Arabic, or from what my heart told me.
Soon Haim learns that the most popular thing to be on Purim is a cowboy, which presents a new mystery: Unlike his classmates, he has not yet learned from American movies how to play cowboys and Indians. He begs his father for a costume and is overjoyed by the cheap paper cowboy hat that is all his family can afford. When the holiday comes, Haim’s hat is ruined by the rain, and no one can even tell what he is supposed to be. But Rav Levichter, the kindly teacher at his Talmud Torah, pretends to be impressed: “A cowboy. What a beautiful costume. I couldn’t recognize you!” For a moment, the child is happy, feeling that he has managed to fit in.
Reading this story, which comes in the first chapter of From the Four Winds, the reader might feel that he is in for a rather familiar kind of book; even if the time and place are unusual, the sentimental anecdote is not. But as the book develops and young Haim gets older, it becomes clear that the themes of this story are more significant, and even tragic, than they might first appear. The struggle of the Egyptian immigrant to understand the ways of his neighbors will become, in time, his effort to grasp the secrets of their previous lives, shadowed by the Holocaust. And the kindness of Rav Levichter is our first introduction to the moral dilemma the book constantly poses. How much truth can children be told about things too terrible for them to comprehend? How much revelation do fathers owe their children, and how much silence?
Haim’s own father is a remote presence in the book. A poor but learned man—the Sabatos are from a dynasty of scholars—he works hard all day and then rushes to the synagogue to study. The boy’s true father figure, the one who introduces him to the mysteries of his new life, is a Hungarian immigrant storekeeper named Farkash. And the Hungarians, who live side by side with the Egyptians in Beit Mazmil, are themselves the prime mystery. “We were all used to open homes,” Sabato writes, “neighbors coming and going without asking permission. … But in the houses of the Hungarians there was always silence, and they always asked us, the children, to be silent, totally silent.”
The reader knows, of course, that it is memories of what they suffered during World War II that shadow these lives. Farkash, who at first seems to be the exception—the only Hungarian who appears open and friendly, able to bring joy to the saddest of his countrymen—turns out to have some of the worst secrets of all. Gradually, Farkash displaces Haim at the center of From the Four Winds, and the book becomes more recognizably fictional. In fact, the fiction is often of a melodramatic kind. Farkash’s story is structured around deathbed confessions and secrets ostentatiously withheld, and it is full of Dickensian figures: ailing and adored mothers, cruel bosses, exploited children. Yet every time the reader resists being manipulated by this kind of storytelling, he is brought up short by the realization that no story could be more melodramatic, or more unbearably moving, than the facts of which modern Jewish history is made.
Farkash has been through the Holocaust, and Haim can see that it is the central fact of his life. But his stories have little to do with it: “I shall not recount to you what happened during those days,” he tells Haim. “And I never will be able to do so; those days are shut up in my heart. Those days are not of our world.” Instead, Farkash makes Haim—now grown to become a rabbi and teacher—the repository of his earliest memories, from the years before the war. These too are tragic, but on a more recognizably human scale.
Farkash, we learn, was raised to be a scholar and loved nothing more than studying in the yeshiva: “There I felt as if I were in the Garden of Eden. Completely immersed, beloved by my friends and my teachers.” But when his father dies and his mother gets sick, he is forced to leave school and become an apprentice to a baker. He soon realizes that his new employer is a monster, violent and heartless, who takes all the joy out of Farkash’s childhood. Worst of all, when his beloved mother is on her deathbed, the baker prevents him from going home to see her—a wrong that Farkash struggles all his life to be able to forgive.
Not until the end of the book do we start to understand why the baker might have thought he was doing Farkash a service by teaching him the necessity of toughness. The baker, it turns out, served during World War I with Farkash’s father, a great scholar who enlisted patriotically in the Austrian army. But something happened to him during the war that shattered his spirit, and he was never the same afterward. When Farkash was just 6 years old, he tells Haim, he was summoned to his father’s deathbed to hear about that dreadful incident, and he wants to pass the story along before he dies—but not to his own children, whom he wants to spare its awful burden. Sabato, who is not overly concerned with narrative subtlety, keeps dangling the revelation in front of the reader’s eyes, only to snatch it away: “I still have not told you the painful story about my father … No, no, I cannot do it. The time has not yet come.” Not until the very last pages of From the Four Winds do we get to hear the story, with its unmistakable moral for Jews and Israelis.
From beginning to end, in fact, From the Four Winds is a didactic book. Sabato arranges his story to emphasize the messages he passionately wants to deliver: about the beauty and value of traditional Jewish learning; the dignity of self-sacrifice in a Jewish state; the heroism and suffering of the Jewish past, and the obligations they impose on the present. These are not new ideas, and a reader who has heard them many times before may well resist the wholly unironic way Sabato presents them. But when it comes to stories like Haim’s and Farkash’s, how can irony be enough?
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.